Direct Download: Fighting Fires with Drone Intelligence

Andrew Avitt

Public Affairs Specialist

Pacific Southwest Regional Office

Sept. 8, 2022

A drone with sunset in background.

A drone sits, prepared to take to the skies. (Photo courtesy of Precision Integrated Programs/Overwatch Aero)

The robotic birds of the sky, known colloquially as drones, were once only a menace to the wildland firefighting community. The appearance of a recreational drone in the skies near a wildfire called for the grounding of all firefighting aircraft, giving birth to catchy sayings like, “If you fly, we can’t,” and “It’s not worth the view.”

While these sayings still hold true due to the need to keep skies clear for pilots, larger firefighting drones play an increasingly important part in fighting these wildfires.

What can these drones do for wildland firefighters? They’re smaller than typical aircraft so they can’t drop thousands of gallons like a supertanker. They can’t deliver thousands of pounds of supplies like the K-MAX or evacuate firefighters like the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. But they can help operations with aerial ignition and intelligence gathering and can relay that intelligence to firefighters on the lines within minutes.

Two people bend over working on a drone.

Leonard Pies and Jordan Hahn with Precision Integrated Programs/Overwatch Aero perform pre-flight maintenance on the FVR-90 fixed wing drone, before takeoff to fly around the perimeter of the Lightning Complex Fire near Willow Creek, California, Aug. 31, 2022. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

The FVR-90 is a fixed wing drone with a 14-foot wingspan capable of speeds up to 80 knots, or just over 92 mph, with a flight time of 8 hours. It usually takes to the air at dusk when other manned flights are grounded. The sky is theirs, and the overhead view they have of the fire is detailed and real time.

These drones also rise to the occasion when manned firefighting aircraft are grounded for pilot safety.

“The way we use UAS [unmanned aerial systems] now is very much a supplement. There are certain times that it’s just not safe for us to utilize manned helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, like nighttime operations or in thick smoke or high winds,” said Justin Baxter, National UAS Operations Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. “But during those times there’s still firefighters out there trying to complete the day’s objectives and put the fire out.”


A drone sits on the ground near a truck with smoky skies.

The fixed wing drone has the capability of flying around the entire perimeter updating maps and providing real time intelligence to firefighters. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

The drones that Baxter and his team fly are equipped with cameras that gather intelligence. But these are not your normal cameras. They come equipped with multiple sensors, including infrared, that allow the team to see through smoke and at night, and to see heat signatures.

This allows the team to identify areas where fire is still active and new areas where flames have advanced, such as spot fires. Spot fires occur when embers from the main fire fly into the air and travel by wind to an unburned area, starting a new ignition. They are notoriously hard to identify because they start small and visibility is diminished by smoke. They also may occur in hard-to-reach places that are difficult for firefighters to patrol, like on steep slopes or down in drainages.

Two maps with different colors.

Firefighting drones carry cameras with multiple types of sensors that can see heat from fires on the landscape, at night and through smoke. In the left image a box shows the area of land that is visible in the right image. These images are then used to update maps. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

“It’s pretty labor-intensive process for firefighters to identify these spot fires, especially when the operational area spans hundreds of thousands of acres,” said Baxter. “But with the drones, fire managers and incident management teams can easily identify these spot fires up to about a mile from the main fire and can scan large areas quickly. This information enables firefighters to get in and suppress those new starts before they get big.”

But how precise can a drone get?

“To give you an idea, this drone can pick up a two-inch by two-inch spot fire from a half mile away,” said Baxter. He gestures to the imposing drone just to his left, minutes before takeoff to fly the perimeter of the Six Rivers Lightning Complex Fire near Willow Creek, California.

Baxter said much has changed since the start of the agency’s UAS program in 2015. With each passing year, incident management teams have incorporated more drone capabilities into their strategies.

A person points to a map.

The fixed wing drone has the capability of flying around the entire perimeter updating maps and providing real time intelligence to firefighters. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

The communication between the UAS crew and firefighters on the ground flows both directions. The drone may be flying over, see heat in an area, and radio it into a hotshot crew to check out. Or the hotshot crew can radio in to the UAS crew to ask for assistance.  and ask for assistance in exploring an area that they suspect might be active, and then view a feed from the drone of the area in question.

John Crotty is currently the air operations branch director with California Interagency Incident Management Team 15 responding to the Lightning Complex Fire on the Six Rivers National Forest.

“Aerial intelligence isn’t new in wildland firefighting,” said Crotty, referring to the recently retired Cobra helicopter and its capabilities. But the implications of unmanned flight— that opens up new possibilities.

Three people near a drone at sunset.

Tyler Kock, Daniel Rodriguez, and Cliff Savage, a contracted UAS crew with Precision Integrated Programs/Overwatch Aero, on the Lighting Complex Fire. These UAS are used to provide real-time situational awareness to ground crews while also providing timely perimeter updates to the command staff. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

“With the Cobra aircraft we needed a pilot, an interpreter up there to run the camera and talk to the folks on the ground. So, we expose two individuals plus a flight [to risk],” said Crotty. “But what we really needed was the visibility to fly.”

Thick smoke on the fires like the Lightning Complex can ground manned aircraft. That's where this tool comes into play and the images it captures can inform firefighters working across a large area.

“The other day I heard from one of the hotshot crews out there [on the Lightning Complex Fire],” said John Crotty. “They were in heavy smoke conditions, at night. With low visibility they couldn't see if they had a spot fire across the line. This tool being up in the air, looking down at that exact area, the UAS crew was able to pinpoint the spot and provide precise coordinates to the firefighters who were able to check it out and put it out. That kind of information we would never have without these unmanned aircraft and that capability.”

A firefighter near a screen in the back of a vehicle.

Crews on the fire line can use information from drones [UAS] to survey the fire’s activity to better inform their suppression strategies.(USDA Forest Service photo courtesy of Mike Yearwood)

The unmanned aerial systems crew couldn’t recall a time when drones were used so much during wildfire incident, which has now been underway for more than a month, and flying these aircraft is much more cost efficient.

Crotty sums it up best, “Drones are the future of aviation for not only fire but for aviation in general. It’s a win-win for the agencies to operate under an umbrella of this type of aircraft that can provide precise and timely info to firefighters and incident management teams, and most importantly, we can do it safely.”

A man with glasses on.

Flight crew members review real-time imagery of the Six Rivers Lightning Complex Fire during the night shift on August 31. Drones have been critical to firefighters and the incident management team, informing suppression strategies on the fire located near Willow Creek, California.  (USDA Forest Service Photo by Andrew Avitt)